“Buckle up and hold on to your teeth,” says our guide. “This is where the real 4WD action starts.”
He wasn’t kidding. I’m smiling like the Cheshire Cat but if I leave my mouth open for too long, I run the risk of biting off my tongue.
I thought we were already four-wheel driving … hugging narrow dirt roads and crossing over the Finke River, happily bumping along. But that was just the introduction to our Emu Run tour to Palm Valley.
I’m on a solo road trip in the heart of Australia — on the Red Centre Way from Alice Springs to Uluru, up to Kings Canyon, around the (4WD) Mereenie Loop to Glen Helen Gorge and along the West MacDonnell Ranges back to Alice.
But there’s always a detour, right? And this day trip is worth the 136km diversion west of Alice Springs.
The real rocking and rolling starts when we enter Finke Gorge National Park and swap our path for the riverbed. It’s slow going, negotiating rock pools still brimming thanks to recent rains.
Experienced offroaders would be comfortable driving out here, but this 4WD novice is glad not to be behind the wheel for now.
Palm Valley is a remarkable oasis in a landscape dominated by red dirt and dramatic cliffs. The red cabbage palms and spiky cycads remain lush thanks to an underground water source. But no one knows how the palms got here … their closest relatives are 1000km away.
A First Nations treasure
Our tour continues to the Hermannsburg historic precinct. This former Lutheran mission was home to Aboriginal watercolour artist Albert Namatjira and has a fascinating history of the Western Arrarnta people, of pioneering missionaries, drought, illness, friendship and sanctuary from Government officials.
“No children were ever taken from their parents or the Mission,” I’m told when I ask about the Stolen Generation. “In fact, those who couldn’t escape when we were warned of a ‘visit’ were hidden in the cellar.”
Most importantly, the stories told at Hermannsburg are not just about the people who lived here, they are told by those people.
You can also stop for afternoon tea and buy prints of Namatjira’s art along with work by local artists (at good prices).
Where to stay:
Discovery Parks Alice Springs is a few kilometres from the city centre. It’s close to all the tourist highlights but far enough away to let the Outback feel sink in.
The road trip begins …
Alice Springs to Yulara — 466km
Now I’m behind the wheel of a 4WD and following the Red Centre Way south along Stuart Highway past Stuarts Well to Erldunda. Both places have food, fuel, caravan parks and emus … a comical distraction for travellers.
The drive is not through desolate desert as you might expect in the heart of Australia.
Rains have reinvigorated the scrub, rinsing off the dust so golden spinifex and green bushes are sandwiched between rich red dirt and teal blue skies.
Erldunda marks the turning point — right on to Lasseter Highway — towards Uluru, then past a few rest areas, signs to Kings Canyon and Mt Conner — dubbed ‘Fooluru’ because it looks like Uluru — until you see the real thing.
Curtin Springs with its Wayside Inn and big campground is just 100km from Uluru.
Where to stay:
Campgrounds at Stuarts Well, Erldunda or Curtin Springs or free camps along the highway — one with toilets 160km from Uluru. The closest free camp is a 24-hour rest stop 28km from Yulara.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta
Uluru (Image: Tourism NT - Kate Flowers)
Just seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta is magical. But you need to get up close and personal for the full impact.
Start with sunrise or sunset at perfectly placed platforms and parking bays.
Visit the Cultural Centre to learn about the Anangu culture and the natural environment.
I tried (and loved) the Uluru Audio Guide. It uses GPS to bring the national park to life with 100 stories that play automatically as you drive or walk past different sites.
There are so many options to get around Uluru. Rangers offer free guided walks. If you’d rather go alone, there are walks to suit all capabilities and curiosities from the short Kuniya and Mala walks to the 10.6km base walk.
Uluru Segway Tours (Image: Tourism NT)
Ride your bike or hire one from Outback Cycling ($70) in the Cultural Centre carpark or hop on a segway ($179). Guides teach you how to segway, then lead the way.
I love a good tour to offer more insight into destinations. Desert Awakenings ($210) starts with breakfast and sunrise from sand dunes. You’ll learn about the desert vegetation and wildlife before a guided walk to Uluru’s Mutitjulu Waterhole and a Cultural Centre visit.
Who knew dinner in the outback could be so flash! Sounds of Silence ($234) includes canapes and bubbly at sunset, a Bush Tucker dinner and a star-spangled decoding of the night sky.
As darkness falls, 50,000 light ‘flowers' illuminate the desert at Bruce Munro’s Field of Light ($45). Walk through the pulsing sea of colour that covers seven football fields.
Drive 50km to Kata Tjuta. The Walpa Gorge and Valley of the Winds walks are the best way to experience this land of ‘many heads’.
Where to stay:
Voyages Ayers Rock Campground is a resort in itself and the only place to park your van. There’s no camping in the national park. But a tip … all accommodation in the Red Centre is ruled by ‘dynamic pricing’. That means the busier it gets, the dearer it gets. Book ahead for cheaper rates.
Lighting a new path to Kings Canyon
While it's impossible to outshine the natural highlights of the Red Centre, there's a new spotlight on one of its icons — Kings Canyon.
Bruce Munro’s Light Towers at Discovery Kings Canyon have added yet another reason to visit the heart of Australia. Each night and just before dawn, 69 tall glass bottle towers fill the desert air with a kaleidoscope of colour and music.
Light Towers at Discovery Kings Canyon (Image Serena Munro)
It’s a 304km drive from Yulara to Kings Canyon. While you’re there: Take the 6km (3 hour) Canyon Rim Walk across 100m-high sandstone walls. Kings Creek Walk is an easier alternative on the canyon floor.
Then go on a Canyon Dash Helicopter flight ($115) for a bird’s-eye view of your mammoth efforts.
Just down the road is the Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience ($99) where you’ll learn about community life — the food, art, beliefs, tools and weapons.
Where to stay:
Discovery Kings Canyon campground has the best views of surrounding ranges and the new Light Towers. And you might see a dingo or two strut past.
The trek from Kings Canyon resort to Glen Helen Gorge (including 4WD-only Mereenie Loop) is 226km. The Loop will be sealed in five years, so if you want to have a crack at this 150km section of dirt road, now is the time.
I may have been overly cautious with extra water, a two-way radio, personal locator beacon plus a few 4WD lessons under my belt … but I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully there’s a steady stream of traffic travelling in both directions. By ‘steady’, I mean 12 cars.
Another constant on this drive — hundreds of horses. Beautiful wild brumbies running free … often straight in front of me.
What’s the gravel road like? Pretty good in parts — wide and corrugations not too bad.
Then there are pretty bad parts where rain has softened edges, left boggy patches and huge corrugations and where traffic has chewed up the track.
And there are sections, like the last 50km heading north, that are just plain awful — full of jarring potholes. It’s a fun drive but reaching the sealed section is a relief.
You can head back to Alice Springs from here, through Hermannsburg or on to Glen Helen Gorge. Stop at Tylers Pass and Mount Sondor lookouts on the way.
Tjoritja-West MacDonnell Ranges
West MacDonnell Ranges (Image Sean Scott)
It’s only 133km from Glen Helen Gorge in Tjoritja–West MacDonnell Ranges National Park to Alice Springs but there’s so much to explore, it’s worth staying a few nights along the way.
Glen Helen Gorge is at the western end of this 800-million-year-old landscape.
The Discovery Park includes a campground, motel, bar/bistro, pool and a terrace overlooking Glen Helen cliffs. Walk along the reed-lined riverbed to the gorge and a pool of water that cuts through the cliffs.
Ormiston Gorge is famous for its hikes and swimming hole. Ghost Gum Walk takes you up hundreds of steps to a lookout then down a rugged trail to the riverbed with black-footed rock wallabies bouncing around the cliff face. There’s also a kiosk and campground.
Further down the road is the Neal Hargraves Lookout where you can stay for 24 hours, Ochre Pits and Serpentine Gorge for a stroll to the animal refuge waterhole.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is a favourite swimming spot, again with a kiosk and campground.
Angkerle Atwatye (Standley Chasm) has been 2.2 billion years in the making. It was once just a crack in the cliff wall — a weak spot where water got in and eroded the sandstone.
It’s owned and operated by the local Arrernte community. The 20-minute stroll ($12) to the chasm along a flat path lined with gnarly river red gums is a must — especially at noon when the sun lights up the cliff walls.
The cafe and campground make it a popular stop for visitors and hikers on the Larapinta Trail.
The last stop is Rungutjirpa (Simpsons Gap). There’s a short stroll to the Gap and permanent waterhole and it’s surrounded by great hiking and bike trails.
Alice Springs is just 18km away … the last stretch on the Red Centre Way.
(The writer was a guest of NT Tourism and Discovery Holiday Parks.)
Before you go …
www.discoveryholidayparks.com.auBook Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park Pass ($38/3 days) at www.parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru or buy it at the entrance
Buy a ($6.50) Mereenie Loop permit from Discovery Kings Canyon
Book Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park and Watarrka National Park passes at www.nt.gov.au/parks
Top up with fuel at Alice Springs, Stuarts Well, Erldunda, Curtin Springs, Yulara, Discovery Kings Canyon and Glen Helen Gorge.
If you leave the van behind …
Accommodation options are:
Rooms at Stuarts Well, Erldunda and Curtin Springs
Hotels for all tastes and budgets in Yulara from the Lost Camel and Outback Hotel & Lodge to Desert Gardens and Sails in the Desert
A luxe experience at Longitude 131
Cabins and glamping tents at Discovery Kings Canyon resort
Rooms at Discovery Glen Helen Gorge
For more information:
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TRAVEL: ON THE PLENTY HIGHWAY, NT